Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Strangers on a Train raises the issue of why its protagonists murder, and it explores the theme of the double. Bruno’s life is aimless and lonely. Murder, rather than making him feel guilty, fills him with a sense of accomplishment. When he decides to kill Miriam, he knows he cannot count on Guy’s reciprocating, so he considers her murder to be motiveless, a “pure murder,” and he is exhilarated by the idea. Yet the possibility occurs to him that, afterward, he might be able to persuade Guy to kill his hated father. Then again, Bruno may subconsciously hope the murder will establish a tie with Guy, on whom he has a crush. Someone who is bored and who has an Oedipus complex and homosexual longings does not necessarily commit murder. Ultimately, the murder of Miriam may be irrational, the act of a psychopath. Yet that raises the question of how it is that Bruno is a psychopath: are psychopaths born or made?

Guy’s murder of Bruno’s father is no less problematic. His life includes love and creative work, and murder fills him with tormenting guilt. At one point, he speculates that he and Bruno are each “what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved,” and he thinks, “Nothing could be without its opposite that was bound up with it.” Later, he thinks of himself as two people, one who is incapable of murder and another who is capable, whom he sees for an instant in the mirror “like a secret brother.”

In the last chapter, Guy first thinks he committed murder because of temperament: “there had been that measure of perversity within him sufficient to do it.” He then explains his act to Owen on the basis of circumstance: “Bruno broke me down with letters and blackmail and sleeplessness.” Was Guy susceptible to Bruno because of a Bruno within; does everyone have a Bruno within; is everyone capable of murder?

In an interview with Diana Cooper-Clark, Highsmith told of her belief that heredity has more to do with the ability to murder than environment, and of her rejection of the idea that “everybody can be coerced into murder.” Her novel raises the troubling issue but does not resolve it.